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In this paper I evaluate the impact of poverty on children and families and the ways in which a community can help change these conditions of marginalization. As of 2014 there are 14.7 million poor children in the United States, which is “the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries despite having the largest economy in the world” (Children’s Defense Fund, 2015). This means that there are 14.7 million children in the US who have increased risk of experiencing health problems, hunger and poor nutrition, developmental delays, psychological problems and educational underachievement (Rafferty & Shinn, 1991). The patterns of poverty are passed down through generations and will not be broken until they have the opportunity to be healthy, educated and skilled enough to participate in the decisions that affect their lives (Peirson, 2010). It is our job as a community to recognize this injustice and work in solidarity with these families in poverty to stop this cycle and help the children of our future succeed.
Children need structure, predictability and consistency in their lives yet moving between shelters and unpredictable living situations is not congruent with those needs (Kilmer, Cook, Crusto, Strater & Haber, 2012). Children and their families lack choice and opportunity to find appropriate shelter and resources mostly due to lack of affordable housing, racial disparities, the challenges of being a single parent and encountering trauma such as domestic violence (America’s Youngest Outcasts). When we treat these families at an individual level we are just scratching the surface of all these factors that lead to the vicious cycle of poverty. Expecting these families to deal with the challenges that come with poverty, while at the same time fighting the stigmas and barriers society holds up against them is extremely unjust. Society rarely considers the societal factors that affect the disadvantaged and view homelessness as the person’s fault and not as a difficult situation or a series of unfortunate circumstances (Deforge, Zehnder, Minick, & Carmon, 2001)
Nelson and Prilleltensky (2010) described the role of a community psychologist as to emphasize the importance of prevention and early intervention through promoting well being through community development, and social and political action. Community psychologists should be able to recognize these injustices and work in solidarity with disadvantaged people towards social change. In this paper I will examine some of the difficulties the children and women I worked with at St. Margaret’s shelter faced and how society should respond to their needs. Although I only worked at an individual level in helping the children in the shelter, I was able to build meaningful relationships and understand the importance of promoting action and change using transformative strategies.
St. Margaret’s is a transitional housing shelter that began offering emergency shelter to homeless women and children in 1992 (Catholic Charities, 2012). Women are offered shelter for up to two years, along with individualized case management, parenting assistance and life skill classes. St. Margaret’s vision statement is to “embody an environment where families have the physical, emotional and spiritual resources they need to create beneficial changes in their lives in order to find and maintain stable housing and lifestyles in the larger community” (Catholic Charities, 2012). These families come from diverse backgrounds, all living at or below 30% of the median family income (Catholic Charities, 2012). This shelter does a great job at making sure the families feel safe and apart of a strong and caring community.
At St. Margaret’s I was a volunteer for their Homework Club, where I helped students with their homework in a controlled and quiet environment twice a week. Being a mentor for these children felt great because I was able to relay the importance of getting a good education and doing well in school. Programs that offer structure, consistency, high expectations and opportunities for responsibility can have a critical influence on low-income children (Douglass, 1996). It was very important for these kids to have a reoccurring mentor supporting their academic success. Although my volunteer work was not considered transformative, I think it is important to look at the individual needs of each child and give him or her the appropriate resources and support. Some children at Homework Club needed a lot more reinforcement due to being easily distracted or unmotivated. If we figure out how to support students based on their unique and diverse needs we will be able to help them thrive in their later education and hopefully in the work force.
In addition to having shelter and food, St. Margaret’s provides the women and children a sense of community. They are all facing similar challenges and being able to relate and look after each other really builds a sense of community and safety. St. Margaret’s does a great job at focusing on a family-centered level. Their intervention focuses on decreasing their stress, giving them free resources, increasing their social, work and coping skills and help expand their knowledge of resources for social support. The workers and volunteers also do a great job by strengthening the caregiver-child dyad by giving parenting classes and support. This dyad “warrants clear attention because caregivers are a core proximal influence on children’s development and adaptation, and the caregiver child relationship is a key contextual factor that can have a significant impact on various life domains and factors affecting a child” (Kilmer et al., 2012). If a mother offers a warm and positive parenting towards her child she can help buffer the negative effects of poverty for the child. St. Margaret’s really helps the women transition into life outside the shelter by offering resume building, job skills and other life skills such as healthy cooking, however I think that having more programs directed towards the children would be very beneficial. Children who spend more than half of their childhood in poverty are much more likely to be poor as adults (Molnar et al., 1990). Therefore it is important to build their skills in hopes it will lower their chances of repeating the cycle of poverty. Tim Moore and colleagues (2011) studied children who grew up experiencing homelessness and asked what they want from the services they came in contact with. The key theme to emerge from this study was “the need for services to engage with children as individuals in their own right, and listen to and acknowledge their experiences” (Moore, McArthur & Noble-Carr, 2011). The children liked to focus on what their parents could do rather than what they couldn’t and wished services would do this too. Therefore services need to help implement a strengths approach and assume that these children and families, with opportunities, support and information can make decisions and plans that will ensure a bright future. Understanding and listening to the perspectives of children who live in shelters is an important aspect in providing them care.
St. Margaret’s is a great ameliorative program but it lacks transformative change because it only treats those already suffering rather than preventing people from becoming homeless. This shelter works at an individual level, giving each woman a case manager who works on her particular problems and goals. Many interventions like this focus on the children and caregivers alone, without addressing the relationships between families and their broader social contexts (Kilmer et al., 2012). Nelson and Prilleltensky (2010) emphasized the importance for community psychologists to work on prevention and early intervention rather than just focusing on individual problems. If they reached out to women who were suffering from risks of becoming homelessness by giving them resources and support they may be able to do more prevention. Another way to help would be to educate the rest of society about the injustices these disadvantaged children and families experience to help destroy negative stigmas that are attached to homelessness and help them focus on the strengths of people living in these adverse conditions. St. Margaret’s should try to go beyond skill building and temporary housing and aim at improving the social and economic conditions within our society if they want to make more of a transformative change.
Many people who want to help these disadvantaged families try to change the families themselves rather than the situations of poverty. We need to look at the deep causes of what is causing these unjust social conditions to happen in the first place. We blame these families for making the wrong choices and decisions rather than at looking at their limited options for support and resources. Nelson and Prilleltensky (2010) stated that community psychologist have a goal of promoting competence and well being through community development and social and political action that involves partnership to work in solidarity with disadvantaged people towards social change. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 was the first and remains the only major federal legislative response to homelessness (Masten et al., 1997). We need to focus on policy level interventions that focus on our overall community deficits and on the prevention and early intervention rather than just treatment. After study community psychology and working with disadvantaged families I have realized the importance of working at a deep transformative level rather than scratching the surface and trying to teach families how to live with misfortunes.
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